One of the main problems we face in American Evangelicalism is unhinged pragmatism. Andy Stanley once claimed that we should unhitch the Christian life from the Old Testament. And you don’t need the Urim and Thummim to ascertain that such an idea belongs on the ash heap. But, many may not see the unhitching that came before—that unhitching involved unhitching life on earth from life in heaven.
So I’m not only talking about your run-of-the-mill church growth silliness. I’m saying the modern evangelical worldview is inept. We pay the utmost attention to cause and effect. But we are only looking at half of the chessboard and half of the pieces. We can detail the operation of the lawnmower better than anyone. But we pay no mind whatsoever to the gasoline that runs that lawnmower. Such neglect leaves our lawns looking like the Florida Everglades in summer.
Similarly, we are like a man building a house who thoroughly understands all of the tools involved. But he knows nothing of the blueprint. We give immense energy to the observation that hammers drive in nails. And we give none to what we are to be building in the world. We are men lost at sea with no sense to fill the tank with diesel and no clue which way we are to go. But none on planet earth can press the buttons and pull the levers like us. And those men working their hearts out on that vessel while going nowhere are most to be pitied. In a nutshell, pragmatism is impractical. And if we do not wise up, we who have prided ourselves on getting things done will find that all of our work will achieve nada.
Such was the case with a chief pragmatist, King Saul, the first king of Israel. We see his plans come to naught in 1 Samuel chapter 23.
The Text: A Summary
We have two main divisions in the chapter. First, David saves the city of Keilah (v. 1-14). Second, Saul pursues David (v. 15-29).
In that first division, David fights for Israel even when he is on the run. David made his escape in the last chapter. He tried to hide among the Philistines since Saul sought his life. But, even as David holds up in the Philistine Cave of Adullam, he cannot help but defend the Israelites at Keilah.
When David hears about the attack, he inquires of the Lord before fighting (v. 2). God says to fight, but David’s men are afraid. So David inquires of the Lord again (v. 4). David defeats the Philistines. And Abiathar, the escaped priest we heard about in the last chapter, comes to David with the ephod in his hand (v. 6).
Saul thinks he has David saying, “God has given him into my hand” (v. 7). Saul claims this must be the case because David has entered a town with bars and gates. Notice that Saul does not inquire of the Lord.
David knows Saul is coming, so he inquires of the Lord again, using the ephod Abiathar supplied (v. 9ff). God tells David he will be given up, so David and his men went wherever they could. The first section ends with a key phrase, “Saul sought him every day, but God did not give him into his hand” (v. 14). “God has given him into my hand” is the very phrase Saul used when he was confident based on his own perception of the situation. But, David used the ephod that was in Abiathar’s hand. And God did not give David into Saul’s hand.
In the second division, David fled to the wilderness of Ziph. Jonathan goes to David and strengthens his hand in God (v. 16). But, the Ziphites tell Saul that David is among them. Saul replies, “Go, make yet more sure” (v. 22). Then, he tells the Ziphites to watch closely and come back to him with “sure information” (v. 23).
Saul pursues David again, notably, without inquiring of the Lord. David and Saul go on opposite sides of a mountain. And right when Saul is closing in on David, he has to leave off his pursuit to defend Israel against a Philistine attack.
When you contrast David and Saul in this passage, a clear message shines forth: Trust God, not-self. There is a wrong kind of faith that does not save. That is faith in yourself. Saul had that. But it did him harm rather than good. The faith that saves is faith in God.
Saul illustrates the spirit of our age. He is a secular man. We shouldn’t be surprised by this. He is, after all, the king “like the nations.” Saul, secularism, and the American cultural message is essentially, “Trust yourself. Operate according to what you see.”
Saul’s fundamental problem was that he inquired, but not of the Lord. Saul told the Ziphites to make their report “more sure.” He wanted them to bring him “sure information.” Such inquiries are not wrong. Getting good data is a wise move. But that kind of inquiry is not enough. Saul stopped short. All of his earthly inquiries were wicked because he was not seeking data in faith. He cared not what the Lord thought. Saul loved listening to the experts, the public announcements, and the news cycles. His faith was in what he could confirm by reason alone apart from any divine Word. And this fundamental error led to others.
Saul drew false conclusions. He just knew God had given David into his hand. How could it be otherwise? David had trapped himself in a gated city! But in God’s world, walled cities don’t keep His people out. And sealed tombs don’t keep His Son in. If your faith commitment was secular—no God, no realities beyond what we can touch and taste—then you would think that David was trapped with no way out. A faulty faith results in false conclusions, flawed projections, charts, and maps that claim to know what will happen. And people like Saul act on those erroneous conclusions.
On the other hand, David demonstrates true faith, faith in God. He inquired of the Lord when things happened in the world. He sought God’s counsel about fighting the Philistines. When his men were hesitant, he sought the Lord again. We can understand why David’s men would be reluctant. David was on the run. His men surely thought, “David, have you lost your mind?” “You know if we do that, we might get shut into the city with no way to escape Saul’s pursuit.” The whole thing didn’t seem very sensible. But the faithful reply comes from David, and it turns out to be simple and immensely practical. That reply is, “But God said to.”